Video by Ahmed Saeed

Text by Xari Jalil

For a very long time, the religious minorities of Pakistan have been seeking a body that will monitor their problems and difficulties and provide solutions for them. This has been the main purpose of what should have been the national commission for minorities’ rights. From discrimination to bias in the school textbooks, the commission would have been able to point things out and to bring forward effective solutions.

First, the successive governments of the country wasted five years in neglecting this need. But in 2020, the sitting government finally decided to set up such a body. But now there are other problems associated with the commission – the very first being, that the minorities themselves have rejected it.

The formation of the commission has come after 5 years since the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan issued directives in a suo moto action, but now the religious minorities and other civil society activists are raising a red flag on it being a ‘toothless’ body, which will eventually be unable to help them.

CONTEXT

The idea of the commission or a ‘council’ came from a lengthy suo moto directive by the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Tasaduq Hussain Jillani in 2014. CJ Jillani took this notice after a letter of complaint came about complaining of a lack of action being taken in the case of the terrorist attack on a church in Peshawar in September 2013. The attack had been brutal, killing 81 people and injuring more. At the same time, the CJP also took notice of the other petitions that had been filed to shine a light on minorities’ situation in the country, including attacks on Hindu temples and shrines and the threats to the Kalashs as well as Ismailis in Chitral.

A three-member bench headed by the chief justice then made a seven point list of recommendations that were to be implemented as soon as possible.

A SEVEN POINT AGENDA

The seven points covered several aspects of the lives of religious minorities in Pakistan, but currently, it is Para 4 that is under controversy.

 1) “The federal government should constitute a task force tasked with developing a strategy of religious tolerance.”

2) Improve the curricula for schools and colleges to promote religious tolerance.

3) “The federal government should take appropriate steps to ensure that hate speeches in social media are discouraged and the delinquents are brought to justice.”

4) The government should constitute a “national council for minorities’ rights. The functions of the … council should inter alia be to monitor the practical realization of the rights and safeguards provided to the minorities under the Constitution and law. The council should also be mandated to frame policy recommendations for safeguarding and protecting minorities’ rights by the provincial and federal governments.

5) “A special police force be established with special training to protect the places of worship of minorities.”

6) The federal government and all provincial governments “should ensure the enforcement of the relevant policy directives regarding the reservation of quota for minorities in all services.

7) “In all cases of violation of any of the rights guaranteed under the law or desecration of the places of worship of minorities the concerned law-enforcing agencies should promptly take action, including the registration of criminal cases against the delinquents.”

In February 2020, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Azam Swati announced that a new National Commission for Minorities (NCM) would be constituted within the next six months.

This new commission, however, has been declared a ‘sham’ by minority representatives.

On February 19, 2020, the Ministry for Religious Affairs noted that the National Commission on Minorities (NCM) would be constituted through an Act of Parliament. But what happened was not this.

“The cabinet did exactly the opposite by approving the creation of an ad-hoc committee, probably just to pace things up,” says Mr Peter Jacob, the Executive Director of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), and the Chairperson of the Peoples Commission on Minority Rights (PCMR). “This is a deliberate aberration from the intent of the original judgment of 2014 and a pledge made in the court. It is equal to ‘contempt of court’,” he adds, saying that it will be ensured that this cabinet decision is challenged in the Supreme Court.

Despite the demands of the minorities’ representatives, on May 5, 2020, the federal cabinet approved the reconstitution of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) approving the summary from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and appointed Chela Ram Kewlani as the NCM chairman. Even though Kewlani belongs to the Hindu community in Sindh, he is also the Vice President of PTI (Sindh) and several Hindus have opposed his being appointed as commission chairman.

The Commission’s other unofficial members include Molana Syed Mohammad Abdul Khabir Azad, Mufti Gulzar Ahmed Naeemi, Jaipal Chabria, Vishno Raja Qavi, Dr. Sarah Safdar, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw, Albert David MBE, Mimpal Singh, Saroop Singh, and Roshan Khurshid Bharucha representing Parsis, and Dawood Shah representing the Kalash.

The official members of the commission are to be representatives from the Ministries of Interior, Ministry of Law/Justice, Human Rights, Federal Education, and Professional Training Division, Chairman of CII, Secretary of Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony.

No Ahmadi has been made a member of the commission, Noorul Haq Qadri had announced. He said neither of the two summaries forwarded by his ministry recommended any Ahmadis.

The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) chairman will also be a member of the commission, according to the minister.

Apart from Peter Jacob, Michelle Chaudhry, Advocate Kalpana Devi, M Parkash Mehtani from Sindh, and Amar Lal Randhawa from Hindu Council Lahore, and I.A Rehman, as well as the office bearers of other civil society organizations, have also stated that the move was nothing but a blatant violation of the SC directives. Meanwhile, the Vice Chairman of the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) Advocate Abid Saqi has also supported the decision.

THE SHOAIB SUDDLE COMMISSION

Four years after the verdict which was never fully implemented, the apex court was forced to set up a commission for the execution of its order. In early 2019, a three-member bench constituted a “one-member commission” under the leadership of Dr. Shoaib Suddle for the enforcement of its orders. Under this, a four-member committee was also formed. This included Saqib Jillani, Dr. Ramesh Kumar apart from Dr. Suddle, and also the present additional attorney general – whoever it was – who would be its members.

An advocate of the SC, Saqib Jillani is the son of former CJP Tasadduq Hussain Jillani who had taken the suo motu notice.

But this commission was only temporary, and its timeline would be extended on a need basis.

“The whole idea was to make this a body which would ensure implementation of the seven point directive,” says Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani who has been lobbying for several minority rights bills in the past too. “The National Commission for Minorities was meant to be apolitical, but the Government has appointed a political person in order to speed things up. At present we have challenged this decision in court. I will not make passing statements, but let the court decide what must be done.”

Jacob told Voicepk.net that the Shoaib Suddle Commission also known as the ‘One-Man Commission’ was constituted separately through an implementation bench and an implementation commission. It was not part of the suo moto directive. But the commission they are demanding now is one that should be permanent – exactly like the National Commission for the Status of Women (NCSW), the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) and the National Commission of the Rights of Children (NCRC).

(In the directive the word ‘council’ has been used in its fourth point, which is representatives but Mr. Jacob says that the word ‘commission’ is being used more, in the sense of the body taking practical steps to give solutions. However, he says there is no legal difference).

But all these commissions have also been formed after the parliament passed a resolution and enacted a national level commission through unanimous agreement.

Yet this is not how the minorities’ commission is being set up. The entire process is ad hoc, disorganized, unrepresentative of its communities, and also unparliamentary.

“A body which is not empowered enough, or as independent as it should be, or if it is not a statutory body that has a role in making policies, holding inquiries and providing remedies for human rights violations, is something that will never be acceptable, to all civil society representatives,” the activists had vowed earlier.

Mr. Jacob also reiterates that these commissions must be made and should reflect a political consensus of the major parties in the country – not just represent one party,” he says. “Such ad-hoc and arbitrary commissions, have been made through administrative powers and have been set up by various governments in the past 30 years. But they did not serve the purpose of protection and promotion of human rights. If another body is set up without powers and recourses, it will not be able to deliver and this kind of tokenism for minorities is instantly rejected.”

Jacob also adds that according to the UN guidelines for human rights institutions (Paris Principles), anyone holding a political office cannot be part of this Commission. These Commissions should reflect a political consensus between government and opposition as provided, for the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission Act No. XVI of 2012.

SCHEDULED CASTES

Meanwhile, the issue of scheduled castes among the Hindus was another issue raised as none of these castes were being represented.

Scheduled caste rights activist Mukesh Bheel has previously aired to the press that the sitting government should sensitize itself about non-Muslim communities before devising such policies and making nominations for bodies such as the NCM.

According to the 1998 census, upper caste Hindus are just over 2.1 million, while members of the country’s scheduled caste communities are around 200,000 in number.

According to a report in The News (Karachi) Pakistan Peoples’ Party MPA Surendar Valasai has accused the federal government of discrimination against the country’s scheduled caste communities by completely ignoring them in the nominations. In 1956, Pakistan’s then government had declared up to 32 castes and tribes as scheduled castes in the country. The majority of them are lower Hindu castes such as Kolhi, Menghwar, Bheel, Bagri, Balmiki, Jogi, and Oad. Even in the census, they are counted separately from Hindus (Jatis).

Mr. M Parkash Mehtani, the patron in chief for District Hyderabad Hindu Panchayat said that the commission had members from PTI which was not very democratic and proposed more political balance. “The Commission must have more weightage, and impartiality so it must be made through the parliament, in a democratic manner. One political party cannot do justice. Also, the commission must have court power so that it can take suo moto notice and has the power to make some kind of difference.” He said that while establishing a Commission was a much-needed action, it should be independent and have a role in decision making.

Michelle Chaudhry Chairperson of the Iris and Cecil Chaudhry Foundation says that this commission should not be under any ministry but should be an independent body.

“It should be through an act so that it is independent, and it should not be under any ministry,” she says. “Even now, there is a controversy regarding the inclusion of Ahmadis, which has been ironic since the commission is meant for religious minorities. But besides that, the commission is not following the process of legal formalities. The members too should have been appointed through a more transparent process.”

Ms. Chaudhry said that the problem should be dealt with seriously as the minorities were extremely downtrodden and marginalized.